Local artist behind Toronto’s iconic raccoon murals says they’re a ‘self-portrait’

If you’ve been wandering Toronto recently, you may have seen one of Emily May Rose’s murals tucked away in an alleyway or in the middle of Yonge-Dundas Square.

The 28-year-old local artist has painted the city with more than 100 murals since 2015, many featuring her signature mischievous raccoons – a beacon and much-loved Toronto mascot.

Raccoons tease Toronto with their curious antics and almost human-like tendency to get into trouble, yet city dwellers seem to like them, and maybe that’s why May Rose draws inspiration from her teenage years.

“A lot of the themes in my work are kind of like I’m not doing anything right,” May Rose told Narcity. “Many of them” [her murals] are kind of based on like me and my friends as teenagers.”

In May Rose’s art, she leans on the playful personality of the animal and often shows them misbehaving with a bottle of spray paint in hand while tagging a wall or smoking under a street lamp.

“It’s funny like we have these weird little brown bears walking around town doing nothing good. That’s hilarious! So I like to emphasize that and exaggerate in my work, and I mean I just try images that are funny and make people laugh.”

Raccoons have become May Rose’s calling card, and she says she sees them as a sort of “self-portrait.”

“I have a relationship with the raccoons, and I think a lot of people do. I think that’s why a lot of people connect with my work.”

“They have a ball, run around alleys and stay up all night. Dark circles around their eyes – we are very similar,” she laughed.

How raccoons became all the rage

In her third year of illustration at OCAD University, May Rose drew a group of animals on a tandem bicycle for an assignment. She included a tiny burgundy raccoon in her art, and the tiny creature slowly became a staple in her work.

An assignment May Rose made during her time at OCAD. An assignment May Rose made during her time at OCAD. Emily May Rose

“As I kept doing illustrations and stuff, my work got more personal with more of an urban themed kind of thing because I live in Toronto. So the raccoon started making a few more appearances, and then it kind of stuck.”

Rose’s art struck a chord with people and she was able to work as an artist full-time before even graduating from OCAD University in 2015.

“I just did everything. I put my art on as many things as I could,” she said. The artist made her own products such as stickers and t-shirts and sold them in markets.

May Rose said she “responded to every call for submissions out there. I’d just be sitting at my computer googling for calls for submissions in Toronto or Canada.”

“I got a lot of rejections, but every once in a while I got a lot of yeses, and after a while it just snowed,” she added.

Today, most people contact Rose for her work which can be found all over Toronto on garage doors, in backyards, on the side of buildings, and on commissions for companies like Tim Hortons and Guinness.

Though being a recognized artist wasn’t always her plan. “My first choice was a movie star. I fell back on a famous artist,” she concluded

This interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

Leave a Comment